You don't need to know anything about commedia dell'arte to appreciate and even enjoy The Harlequin Studies. While the new show by Bill Irwin - the subject of the Signature Theatre Company's 2003-2004 season - is enhanced by some knowledge of the traditional theatrical form, chances are you'll be surprised by how much you understand even if you have no previous exposure.
As is explained in the humorous preamble (delivered by Irwin himself, along with his longtime collaborator and the show's principal musician Doug Skinner), Harlequin is a major building block of not only Western drama but the Western psyche. The "ur-character" within our own psyche is the way they describe him, but you may know the "type" from Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, or, well, many TV sitcoms. He's very instinctual, with the strongest wants and needs, yet remaining playful and devoted (often as a servant).
But Irwin has no interest in describing Harlequin - he's much more interested in demonstration, and that idea that forms the bulk of The Harlequin Studies. The program proper begins with a series of ten brief explorations of different aspects of Harlequin, from the juggling tax cut proponent to the half-man, half-woman, to a lecherous man driven by appetites of every kind, and so on. Irwin and his troupe keep the action moving fluidly from one character to the next, their acrobatics (both physical and verbal) thoroughly dissecting not only Harlequin, but Western performance itself.
That point is made most clearly with the evening's third segment, a lengthy scenario for Harlequin and three other commedia characters titled "Harlequin and His Master Wed." On the surface the situation appears fairly specific - Harlequin's master, Pantalone (Paxton Whitehead), is about to seal a deal with The Captain (Rocco Sisto) to marry his daughter (Marin Ireland), with whom Harlequin is smitten - but it doesn't take long to realize that with only minor dialogue and costume changes, the same story could have been written in 1700, 1800, 1900, or even 2003. The building blocks are that basic.
That universality is reflected in Douglas Stein's set design and James Vermeulen's lights, both paying affectionate tribute to undistinguished, natural performing spaces. (Stein and Vermeulen succeed brilliantly in placing the weight of performance squarely on the performers' shoulders - the integral curtain and chest aside, there are few places for the performers to hide.) Catherine Zuber's costumes for the various incarnations of Harlequin reflect traditional attire, allowing great freedom of movement while making few statements of their own - even the colors, variations on earth tones, are muted, much like Harlequin himself.
And as the silent Harlequin in the show's primary scenario, Irwin is masterly, his lithe body and face capable of not only representing but creating every emotion from joy to sorry, pride to shame, success to failure, and most in between. Irwin's Harlequin is a master of physical comedy and emotional truth, frequently both at the same time. He's Everyman and yet his own creation, the ideal human in a way. Irwin's portrayal is so thorough, he steals the show by default, though his fellow performers are certainly equally worthy of note - Whitehead, Sisto, and Ireland are enormously successful with their own scenario creations primarily through words, while the applied gymnastics of Steven T. Williams, John Oyzon, and Andrew Pacho reveal a physical side of Harlequin in a way even Irwin seems incapable of (the acrobatics are credited to Lorenzo Pisoni).
The Harlequin Studies is instructive and often blissfully entertaining, though parts of the scenario drag a bit after the inspired, energetic romping of "The Studies." Still, at a trim 70 minutes - approximately the length of a college class - you're likely to learn more about theatre and performance than you bargained for, with Irwin as such a masterful professor.
Signature Theatre Company